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Pilot program evaluates teachers Six area schools among those in test

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A performance-based teacher evaluation system being piloted this year across South Carolina won’t include letter grades, a deputy superintendent said Monday.

So far, 47 schools in 14 districts have signed on to help finalize Superintendent Mick Zais’ proposal for evaluating educators. Several more are expected to be added before classes start next month.

One of the most controversial aspects of the plan has been dropped from the 2013-14 testing period. Teachers will not receive an A through F letter grade on their evaluation.

Zais had advocated the idea as a way to clearly communicate to teachers how they’re performing. But educators opposed it as degrading, and the state Board of Education sided with them. While a pilot project doesn’t need board approval, a statewide model will, and board leaders made clear at a meeting last November they did not like that provision.

Six Charleston County schools helped test the state’s new evaluation system this past school year, and those same schools will continue doing so this fall. The schools include: Burke High, Greg Mathis Charter High, Morningside Middle, North Charleston High, R. B. Stall High, and St. Johns High. No schools in Berkeley or Dorchester counties are participating in the pilot project.

Charleston also will be rolling out a separate teacher evaluation system in 2013-14 as part of its implementation of a $23.7 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant. The grant calls for pilot schools in the district to use the evaluations based on student growth in 2013-14, and that would be expanded to all teachers the following year.

Deputy Superintendent Charmeka Childs said the agency’s focus this year needs to be on developing how teachers are evaluated, not a grade only they would see.

“We are listening,” she said. “This was definitely an area we received feedback.”

She added, however, that grades could still be part of Zais’ proposal next summer for a statewide evaluation system.

The director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said she’s proud that teachers voiced their concerns and is glad officials listened.

“We’ve said from the beginning that’s not a good way to evaluate teachers,” said Kathy Maness.

Evaluating educators based on performance is a required part of the state’s exemption from the all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

States granted the waivers are exempt from requirements that all students score proficient on state-standardized math and reading tests by 2014.

The U.S. Education Department approved South Carolina’s request for flexibility in July. Earlier this year, it OK’d the state’s specific plan for evaluations, disappointing educator groups that had offered their own plan.

Zais’ plan was preliminarily tested in 22 schools last school year that needed to implement some form of performance-based evaluations to fulfill requirements for federal grants. Zais wanted at least eight districts to volunteer for 2013-14. He pushed the idea to superintendents as the best way for them to get involved in the decision-making process.

Education advocates, who blasted the agency’s plan as invalid and unreliable, expected getting volunteers to be difficult.

Childs said officials are pleased by the participation. Of the 47 schools signed on so far, 14 are school improvement grant recipients, she said.

“It speaks to the recognition that this is an important decision the state is making in how we want to shape the future of our evaluation system,” she said. “Developing a new system needs to be a partnership.”

The piloting schools are overwhelmingly rural, with state report cards grades that span the spectrum from “at-risk” to “excellent.”

The performance diversity will allow officials to see if their plan for calculating students’ growth over a school year is fair to both high- and low-achieving schools, Childs said.

Each participating school is piloting four components for evaluating teachers: classroom observations, achievements made by their students, the performance of the entire school, and a fourth method chosen by the district.

“That’s a chance for districts to give us ideas,” Childs said.

School officials will choose one of two ways to handle classroom observations, either by averaging the scores of several observations or requiring several evaluators to reach agreement. Either way is less burdensome than the current observation system, she said.

For core subject areas, student performance will be based on a combination of scores on statewide and local tests. Officials are still working on how to judge student performance in non-tested subjects, such as art. Special education teachers have been particularly worried about that component.

“We look forward to seeing everything once it’s constructed,” Maness said. “But it’s good news to hear they won’t grade teachers A through F.”

Diette Courrege Casey of The Post and Courier contributed to this story.

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